Education professor channels discomfort into learning with children's literature

Faculty of Education
Apr 1st, 2016
Marcia Porter

Dr. Anne Burke

Dr. Anne Burke was an avid reader as a child, gobbling up every book she could get her hands on. Now, she uses her personal—and extensive—Canadian children's book collection as an in-class resource.

As part of her work with the Social Sciences Research Council of Canada (SSHRC)-funded project titled Developing a Pedagogy of Social Justice through Post-Colonial Literature, the associate professor of literacy and early learning in the Faculty of Education uses titles from her library to help people overcome their discomfort when talking about, or teaching about, difficult and emotionally charged topics.

National initiative

The project began in 2014, with Dr. Burke and research colleagues from seven universities working directly with classroom teachers and administrators at eight sites across Canada.

The educators were encouraged to think about how to create in students—and the broader society—an awareness and sensitivity to other people's experiences, including horrific chapters in history that confound our understanding.

"We wanted to help 'unpack' that discomfort in talking about difficult issues, such as residential schooling," she said, recounting a Grade 6 teacher's experience with her students in St. John's.

Using the book Fatty Lags: a True Story, written by Christy Jordan Fenton, teacher Laura Butland took up the charge and introduced her 12-year-old students to the subject of residential schools, a devastating chapter in Canadian history for Indigenous peoples.

She and her teaching partner read the text aloud. Fatty Legs is about the frightening residential school experience of Olemaun, an Inuit child and the real-life heroine of the story.

"When Olemaun refused to wear the scratchy red-wool socks given to her by a particularly nasty nun, you could see in the children's faces that they are cheering for Olemaun, and feeling empowered by her actions," said Dr. Burke.

While the young students might not have been able to relate to the residential school experience, they empathized with Olemaun's plight.

"One of the students said, 'I can't imagine not being allowed to speak my own language,' and that was a powerful learning moment in the class, showing understanding of loss of culture and language," said Dr. Burke.

Findings to be published

The SSHRC project research findings, teacher-experiences, recommendations and a reading list of Canadian children's books will be published in 2017 under the title Rediscovering Canadian Literature: Voices for Social Justice in the Classroom by Canadian Scholar's Press. The book will explore the potential for multicultural literature to promote social justice, intercultural understanding and more inclusive understandings of Canada's growing diversity in Grades 4-12 classrooms.

"We hope to engage educators at all career stages to consider theoretical and practical issues in social justice education," said Dr. Burke. "I want people to see that these topics of conversations are never too early to introduce to school children. These conversations can and should take place in classrooms."



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